Low graduation rates among African-Americans at Maryland's historically black colleges and universities present a major issue deserving of systematic analysis for solutions. This problem has been well documented by countless media outlets in HBCU communities nationwide, including in a recent Sun editorial.
That editorial also challenged Maryland's HBCUs on the efforts of their faculty and administration to create and maintain cultural changes that can reverse the systemic trend of underachievement, which begins well in advance of any student's arrival at any HBCU. At Morgan, we are extremely proud of our gains in retention and graduation rates, achieved by way of mentoring programs, accelerated preparatory curriculum and community-based outreach that extends beyond the campus borders and into the lives and homes of our present and future students. Over the past three years, Morgan's overall second-year retention rate has increased from 69 percent to 72 percent, while graduation rates for scholarship athletes have increased from 56 percent to 61 percent. (Worth noting is that these improvements have taken place in the face of reduced funding, indicating that, even with less, HBCUs continue to do more.)
But Morgan, its HBCU counterparts here in Maryland, and the state still miss the mark when it comes to our shared obligation to provide much-needed financial aid to deserving and willing students, through to graduation.
In 2011, Morgan's Office of Institutional Research conducted a study of 300-plus students who did not return and discovered that nearly 40 percent of these students were making good academic progress but simply lacked the financial resources to stay in school. If Morgan — which, in proportion to our operating budget, already contributes more institutional-based financial aid to our students than any other public university in Maryland — had the resources to award these students financial aid, our retention rate would have been comparable with retention rates at the University of Maryland College Park and University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Simply stated, lack of financial aid is a huge barrier keeping many of Maryland's African-American students from completing their degrees within the six-year window used to determine a university's graduation rate.
Historically black college campuses in Maryland have been facing the challenge of educating under-prepared and economically disadvantaged students throughout their existence. Our tradition is to provide the type of personalized and supportive environment that allows students to make up for past deficits in their preparation for college and to gain the confidence they need to be successful. Morgan's initiatives include time-tested ones such as a summer transition programs, course redesign, extensive tutoring, special freshmen classes, close monitoring, and, when necessary, intrusive intervention. Despite being hampered by too few faculty and other specialists to produce a more robust record of student success, we still — more than any other university in the state — produce high-achieving graduates from populations that, statistically, would not otherwise gain admittance to college, let alone graduate.
To a greater degree than most states, Maryland's socioeconomic vitality depends on the success of its African-American population. However, due to lower college completion rates for African-Americans, the percentage of such students receiving baccalaureates from Maryland public and private colleges has been stuck at about 20 percent for the past decade, even as the state's total share of college graduates has grown steadily to the current 36 percent. In combination with these students' tremendous financial needs, it is a situation that has worsened as costs have increased and the economy has struggled.
What would this number be without the impact and care of the state's historically black colleges and universities? The question is not answered by chiding Maryland's HBCUs to make the most of $12 million split among four universities to be distributed over five years, but to ask how the state and federal government can build upon this responsible investment in Maryland's citizens and their futures.
Unless we want the dream and growing necessity of a college education to become accessible only for those who can afford it, the state, with nearly one-third of its residents African-American and a disproportionately high number of its high school students living at or below the poverty line, will have to figure out how to provide greater financial aid to these students.
Morgan and its sister HBCUs have demonstrated for nearly 150 years a unique and consistent aptitude of how to take it from there.
David Wilson is President of Morgan State University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.